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Favorites likely to arise in mountains
The flat stages now over, the Tour heads to the Pyrenees, where the true contenders should emerge.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published July 12, 2006
DAX, France - Now for the hard part.
Having made it through fast and dangerous racing during the opening flat stages of the Tour de France, riders veer today into the Pyrenees for their first encounter with the high mountains.
The steep, long, hard climbs should help separate true contenders to succeed seven-time winner Lance Armstrong from those who can't make the gradient, offering a little clarity to a race devoid of standouts.
The spotlight will move from sprint specialists such as Oscar Freire, winner of Tuesday's pancake-flat Stage 9. Lithe climbers and riders eyeing the overall title, who need to get over the humps well if they are to win in Paris on July 23, will move to the fore.
Freire, a three-time former world champion, got past current world champion Tom Boonen and held off a late-surging Robbie McEwen of Australia to triumph in a grouped sprint finish at Dax in southwest France. The 105-mile ride started in Bordeaux.
The Spaniard's second win this Tour was consolation for missing the expected birth of his first child in the coming days.
"It's better to be here winning, while not being at home, than being here losing," he said.
Contenders for the overall title did what they nearly always do in flat stages: stay safely out of the sprinters' way. The gap between race leader Serhiy Honchar of Ukraine and No. 2 Floyd Landis of the United States remained unchanged at a minute.
American Levi Leipheimer's bad Tour got worse. He had a tire problem in the final stretch that cost him 26 seconds, adding to the large deficit he built in the first long time trial last weekend. He is 6:43 behind Honchar, which could rule him out of the title race.
Landis said riding consistently in the mountains would be key.
"All of the mountain stages can be potentially disastrous if you have a bad day," he said.
That comment came at a news conference Monday when he announced he is racing with a painful arthritic hip that will need to be replaced after the three-week Tour, clouding his long-term career prospects.
His friend David Zabriskie, a fellow American riding for a rival team, said he thinks Landis will be fine.
"He's a tough guy, he'll be all right," Zabriskie said.
Because the race is so open, a problem for Landis and other riders is identifying which of their rivals they need to watch closely in the mountains and not let get too far ahead.
The hierarchy at the Tour has been thrown into disarray not only by Armstrong's retirement but by a doping scandal that forced the withdrawal of top contenders before the start July 1. Crashes have also whittled down the field.
"It's hard to make a strategy when you don't know how the race is gonna go," said Cadel Evans, an Australian among those who could challenge for the podium. He trails Honchar by 1:52.
He was among those relieved to get off the fast flats where the pack speeds to the line together.
"You have to fight for position with your elbows," he said.
Landis said he expects the Alps, which come in Week 3, to help determine the outcome more than the Pyrenees.
Nevertheless, the mountains that straddle France and Spain are no cakewalk.
Today's stage from Cambo-les-Bains to Pau has three climbs. The hardest, to the Soudet pass, ascends to more than 5,000 feet and is so tough it is rated "hors categorie," or defying classification on the scale the Tour uses to measure the difficulty of ascents.
The cyclists will ride uphill for 9.1 miles at an average gradient of 7.3 percent, far steeper in places, to reach the Soudet pass. They will approach from the west, the first time the pass has been climbed in the Tour from that side.
Thursday brings the hardest Pyrenean stage, a 128-mile trek up five hard ascents, the first of them "hors categorie."